Bethany Clough

Eating Out: Cracked Pepper moves to northwest Fresno

Cracked Pepper Bistro has moved to new digs in northwest Fresno.

The restaurant, which has a reputation for being one of the best in town, reopened last week with a new wine cellar and bar, and a dining room with a warm mix of wood, metal and shades of red.

The restaurant left its Shaw Avenue and Fresno Street location after eight years. It's now at 6737 N. Palm Ave., near Herndon Avenue, in the North Pointe Shopping Center.

The new Cracked Pepper seats about the same number of diners as before. The move was driven by a lack of parking at the old place — with stories of customers parking at Macy's across the street in Fashion Fair and walking — and other behind-the-scenes difficulties.

Although plenty will look different to loyal fans, owner and chef Vatche Moukhtarian says he is striving to keep the restaurant the same old Cracked Pepper his customers love.

One of the biggest changes is the addition of a bar — and all the gourmet cocktails that come with it.

It serves what Moukhtarian and his visiting New York bartender Carlos Moran call "culinary cocktails" or "craft cocktails."

They're made with fresh-squeezed fruit juices and vegetables. One, the honeysuckle, is made with Fresno chilies, along with tequila, lime and honey, and has a subtle little kick.

The pair also are excited about a new mold that allows bartenders to serve cocktails with a big 2-by-2-inch ice cube. It melts slower and won't water down your Negroni, for example, a drink made with gin, Campari, vermouth and orange zest and served "on the rock."

Cracked Pepper has a new wine cellar — actually a room with a glass door — that diners can peek into on their way to the restroom. Before, the wine was scattered in four or five storage areas, inspiring the occasional scavenger hunt to find the bottle they were looking for.

Other changes are behind the scenes, but make for a happy kitchen staff, including a bigger kitchen so cooks aren't sardined in elbow to elbow. Also new is a wood-fueled grill that will add a little smokiness to the traditional dishes.

"Anything kissed by fire has more flavor," Moukhtarian says.

The menu isn't changing — yet. The popular eggplant Napoleon — eggplant, goat cheese, roasted tomatoes and pesto — and the beloved bread pudding are still on the menu.

The chef is planning some changes to the menu eventually, but for now he is focused on easing customers into the new location.

The restaurant has a patio with lights and an orange canopy near Parma Ristorante. The shopping center is going through a little revival after Parma moved there and Rue Cafe opened, along with the existing By the Sea and Club Habanos.

Back at Cracked Pepper, one thing that hasn't changed is the need to make reservations. Call (559) 222-9119.

Elephant Bar

Rumors are swirling about the future of Elephant Bar on North Blackstone. The parent company of the chain filed for bankruptcy last month and is reorganizing and looking for a buyer. As part of that process, 16 Elephant Bar restaurants closed — but Fresno is not one of them.

A manager at the Fresno location said it is not affected by the reorganization.

Elephant Lounge

An entirely different restaurant with a similar name, Elephant Lounge, has opened in Clovis. The independently owned restaurant is at 80 W. Shaw Ave., in the space once occupied by North India Bar & Grill.

The new owner is keeping things quiet as he works out the kinks and plans a grand opening, but you can expect more details about the restaurant in this column in the near future.